In the wake of the UK's News of the World voicemail scandal, the Australian government announced today that it will consult the public on legislating for a right to privacy.
"Right now there is no general right to privacy in Australia, and that means there's no certainty for anyone wanting to sue for an invasion of their privacy," said the Minister for Privacy, Brendan O'Connor, in a media release.
Australia does have some laws to deal with certain privacy breaches. For example, the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act (Cth) 1979 makes a crime of phone tapping and other misuse of communications services. Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and equivalent state laws cover individuals' privacy in certain situation, such as when doing business.
"The News of the World scandal and other recent mass breaches of privacy, both at home and abroad, have put the spotlight on whether there should be such a right," O'Connor said.
The spotlight was also put on Australians' lack of right to privacy three years ago.
In August 2008 the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) tabled the report For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice. This report resulted from a comprehensive 28-month inquiry into the effectiveness of the Privacy Act and other laws in protecting privacy in Australia. It made 295 recommendations for reform.
"Federal legislation should provide for a statutory cause of action for a serious invasion of privacy. The Act should contain a non-exhaustive list of the types of invasion that fall within the cause of action," said Recommendation 74-1.
Examples of a serious invasion of privacy would be when there has been interference with an individual’s home or family life; when an individual has been subjected to unauthorised surveillance; when an individual’s correspondence or private written, oral or electronic communication has been interfered with, misused or disclosed; or when sensitive facts relating to an individual’s private life have been disclosed.
The report also recommended mandatory data breach notification laws.
When the 2008 ALRC report was released the then Special Minister for State, Senator John Faulkner, announced that the government would respond two stages. The first stage of the response [PDF] addresses 197 of the 295 recommendations.
An exposure draft of new Australian Privacy Principles (APP) was prepared in 2010, and the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee reported on the draft [PDF] APPs in June 2011.
A public issues paper will be issued "soon", said today's media release. A period of public consultation will follow.
"Privacy is emerging as a defining issue of the modern era, especially as new technology provides more opportunities for communication, but also new challenges to privacy," O'Connor said.